Dallas — On exhibit in the Hall of State building in Fair Park is a photograph taken by Marion S. Trikosko of the only meeting between Civil Rights leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. on March 26, 1964. Trikosko, a photographer with U. S. News & World Report magazine, had no way of knowing he had captured an image of what would become a significant photograph in American history. That following spring, Malcolm X was assassinated. Trikosko’s photograph has inspired many to ponder what might have been had those two men found a way to join forces in the struggle for civil rights.
In 1987, Jeff Stetson wrote The Meeting, his first play, which posits a hypothetical scenario for our musing: how might a second and more substantial meeting have proceeded? Stetson adapted The Meeting for the small screen, and it was televised in 1989 as part of the PBS series, American Playhouse.
The African-American Repertory Theater (AART) and the Dallas Historical Society have joined efforts to bring this production to the Margaret and Al Hill Lecture Hall located on the lower level of the majestic Hall of State in Fair Park. The building’s Cret modernist design, which blends art deco and classicism, is a fitting frame for The Meeting, and for the Dallas Historical Society’s exhibit, “Dallas in the time of MLK,” in the lobby gallery. Entertainment for the opening reception was provided by recording artist Madelyn Brené, accompanied on piano by Myles Tate.
Welcoming the audience to this opening production directed by Regina Washington was AART’s artistic director, legendary actress and educator, Irma P. Hall.
It is an evening in 1965. Malcolm X (Christopher Dontrell Piper) and his body man Rashad (Darren McElroy) are resting in a Harlem hotel. They are not far from the Audubon Theatre and Ballroom in Washington Heights where Malcolm is scheduled to speak, and where he will be murdered. Malcolm has invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jordan DragonKing) to visit with him. The visit has been facilitated in secret as both men are under constant FBI surveillance, and living with death threats from factions that do not want either of them to succeed in their struggle for civil rights.
Rashad is distrustful, disagreeing with the idea of the meeting, more because of their experiences with hostile forces than because of Dr. King. Malcolm X and Dr. King are initially very skeptical of each other. Their conversation immediately establishes each man’s strong conviction regarding his position. Martin, a Baptist minister, is committed to the principle of non-violent protests and activities, believing that the method most likely to result in legislation and policy changes. Malcolm conversely has no trust in the white establishment, therefore no trust that any ensuing policy or legislation will truly provide freedoms and expand the rights of the oppressed, arguing “The one in power always decides the privilege.”
Piper and DragonKing keep the pace and the energy high, moving the dialogue along without much time for stillness. For any distraction the up-and-down and back-and-forth interjects, it serves to reinforce the characters’ uneasiness, which was important to establish. Washington’s positioning of the actors made use of every inch of Prudence Jones’ set, which includes a balcony eerily remindful of the one on which King was assassinated in 1968.
Piper and DragonKing create arcs, such as when King expresses empathy and concern for X’s family following the recent bombing of his home. The actors effectively communicate the apprehension of the characters. DragonKing’s mannerisms are deliberate, leaving no room for confusion regarding Dr. King’s thoughts. Piper’s vinegary articulation contrasts Malcolm’s brashness and Martin’s patience. Some of the best moments come when Piper wavers ever so slightly in his steeled tone with King. It is Piper who regulates the temperature of the 90-minutes.
Framing the action subtly and unobtrusively are the lighting (Sarah Jones) and sound (Bear Hamilton), which leave any bite or starkness for the dialogue to issue.
The flow of the event from one’s entrance into the Hall, through the exhibit filled with historical artifacts, to the engaging action onstage, this production of The Meeting succeeds. Now is a good time to remember the high price paid for activism in the past. Perhaps more importantly, now is also the time to remember when people with diametrically opposing methodologies found intersections in which communication could occur.
This is what debate actually looks like.